CRUELTY TO MOTHERS is a vivid, lurid part of Trump’s America. Is it just one more cruelty among others, or is cruelty to mothers a particular kind of thing whose properties are unique?
In her new book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Jacqueline Rose notes that motherhood is celebrated in a saccharine way while the actual women who birth us are ignored, disavowed, punished. Rose’s account traces the abandonment of mothers that she claims stems from the psychic dynamics of the mother-child bond. She does not address how the patriarchal nuclear family replicates these ills and may even cause them. Sophie Lewis, in Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, answers with a rousing utopian call for the abolition of the family. But when we abolish the family, where do we find our mothers? Can a new form of kinship survive the end of patriarchy?
Current assaults on Roe v. Wade in several state legislatures and the separation of migrant mothers from their children at the Mexico-US border illustrate two conflicting cultural attitudes about mothers: one, that motherhood is a natural, essential biological role for women that should not be a matter of “choice”; and two, that mothers are disposable and ties of nature do not necessarily bind. These policies fit neatly together in their misogyny, practiced especially effectively on impoverished women of color. However, their underlying assumptions about motherhood — whether it is natural or contingent, necessary or criminal — are contradictory.
Public debates about reproductive justice and immigration policy force us into further contradictions. Particular kinds of mothers are valorized (white, stay-at-home) while others are demonized (women of color, especially poor and/or foreign); the unborn are preferred to actual children (particularly poor children); and the two-parent nuclear family is enshrined as a norm even though families come in many shapes and sizes.
Feminists have never agreed on how (and whether) to link the fact that babies have thus far mostly emerged from the bodies of women with the many political interpretations of biology developed in cultural theory. We wrestle with whether (and how) to separate the specifics of female reproductive capacity from attitudes and assumptions about what social roles women can play, what women can do and might be imagined doing.
As far back as Plato’s Republic, Socrates asserted that the biological differences we see between men and women do not matter when it comes to the ability to govern justly. It is the composition of the soul, not the constraints or possibilities of the body, that are crucial for wisdom. Sexual roles in reproduction have as little importance as eye color when assessing who should rule. Plato thus concludes that women can be philosopher queens, but to free women for their intellectual tasks, the nuclear family must be abolished. Needless to say, feminist responses to this proposition have been vexed. Where some see sex-gender equality, others fear that women will be turned into men, will be forced to adopt “manly” virtues, and/or will lose their (potential) power and (sometime) pleasure in their role as mothers.
For more than 2,500 years, the jury has been divided. Does mothering prevent women’s public influence, or is being a mother itself a form of deep, quasi-mystical power? In the tragic and comic poetry of Greece before Plato, we see deep ambivalence about maternal power. Evidence abounds showing mothers who love too much, too little, too incestuously, or too violently. The child-killing Medea is a prime example, but neither should we forget Jocasta, who loved her son Oedipus too incestuously, or Clytemnestra, who loved her daughter Iphigenia too passionately. Agave, maybe the most dangerous mother of them all, abandons her housework to frolic in the country with her sisters and unwittingly kills her son, the king. In one quick action, Agave eliminates patriarchal rule and decisively violates the norms of mother love and protection.
Mothers are both the source of agony and the authors of its expected repair. Jacqueline Rose captures this dynamic, claiming that motherhood “is, in Western discourse, the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human.” Because we seek to disavow the “secret” knowledge mothers share about dependency, vulnerability, and interconnection, Rose claims, cruelty to mothers becomes simultaneously a form of cruelty to the world.
Rose’s Mothers consists of three short, connected essays on social punishment, psychic blindness, and the vicissitudes of the mother/child bond in the work of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. What brings these essays together is Rose’s claim that human disappointment — over vulnerability, danger, fear, anger, weakness — motivates our cruelty to mothers, our original caretakers whom we expect to fix everything. And yet they don’t, and they can’t. Not only are mothers not the authors of their own lives, but they are also not the authors of their children’s lives. It matters then that Ferrante writes pseudonymously: no one knows who she really is, though one male Italian critic has tried to out her. Rose connects Ferrante’s disavowal of authorship to her insight that mothers do not own or control their children, nor can they ultimately protect them.
Rose meditates on the “dark” side of mothering, giving voice to anger, thwarted desire, feelings of insufficiency. But although she relies a good bit on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), she misses one of Beauvoir’s main points — that women are complicit in their own refusals of freedom. Andrea Dworkin puts it more bluntly in her 1983 book Right-Wing Women: “Mothers raise daughters to conform to the strictures of the conventional female life as defined by men […] Mothers are the immediate enforcers of male will, the guards at the cell door, the flunkies who administer the electric shocks to punish rebellion.” The words “Aunt Lydia” will bring Dworkin’s view rather immediately to mind for most of us.
Rose does see how right-wing policies threaten women’s lives and freedom. But she stops short of a full critique of motherhood as such. For that we have to turn to Sophie Lewis, who comes to the rescue with her demand for “full surrogacy now.” What Lewis means by “surrogacy” is not commercialized gestation, “a means by which capitalism is harnessing pregnancy more effectively for private gain,” reportedly a two-billion-dollar industry in 2017. Much of her book is devoted to discussing the practice of Dr. Nayna Patel, one of the most well-known surrogacy specialists in the world. Patel, who practices out of a clinic in Anand, India, calls herself a feminist, often citing Oprah’s 2006 endorsement of her clinic as “women helping women.” Feminism has a tricky relationship to surrogacy; as Lewis shows, other feminists see Patel’s clinic as portending a dystopian future straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale (thus suggesting that Oprah’s neoliberal, self-help feminism may lead unintentionally in this direction). Lewis asks us to reject both of these knee-jerk responses and reexamine our otherwise “unreflexive horror” at the idea of gestational surrogacy. She boldly reframes pregnancy as work.
In so doing, she gets to a deeper truth. The surrogacy Lewis demands is “real surrogacy,” “full surrogacy,” where surrogacy is “human gestational labor.” She puts it this way:
Labor (such as gestational labor) and nature (including genome, epigenome, microbiome, and so on) can only alchemize the world together by transforming one another. We are all, at root, responsible, and especially for the stew that is epigenetics. We are the makers of one another.
By recasting pregnancy as gestational labor, Lewis is able to highlight the ways that patriarchal families become sites of capitalist extraction, ripe for racist, gender-normative narratives about who mothers should be, who should control them, and how. All too often mothers become the “right-wing mothers” Andrea Dworkin condemns. As Emma Goldman was always quick to remind us, mothers produce daughters for marriage and sons for war.
Expanding or altering motherhood by recognizing gestation as labor and encouraging multiple forms of gestation, Lewis charts a queer and communist future. In this future, the patriarchal nuclear family is over, “ownership” of children is passé, and there are many new and diverse opportunities for bonding and nurturance. As a result, mothers can be found everywhere: in the labor of migrant women, domestic help, service workers, cooks, nurses, and teachers, all of which counts as caring gestation. Lewis sees this as a vision of care for the world, a future of collective belonging, built by the kind of labor Rose described as unpaid, unrecognized, and cruelly punished.
Each of these books names a problem with mothering in order to call for a different future. But since Rose so convincingly documents the cruelty to mothers, she makes it harder to believe that Lewis’s future is possible. Lewis anticipates such objections, citing an origin story that begins in second-wave feminism, specifically Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970). Though Firestone was dismissed as too radical, too utopian, she listed very practical ideas for new ways of living, new forms of family beyond patriarchy. However, where Lewis recognizes the labor, the desires, and the messy biological and emotional complexities of gestation, Firestone thinks there may be a technological fix. Lewis rejects this part of Firestone’s program, calling her own text a “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter indeed.” The daughter rewrites the mother to generate something new — a bold act that resembles the very surrogacy Lewis calls for.
Heidi Schreck, whose 2017 play What the Constitution Means to Me is currently enjoying a limited run on Broadway, also casts herself as a daughter with surrogacy powers (though she might not put it that way). She is at the very least a disloyal daughter, one who takes the Constitution away from the Founding Fathers. To do so, she searches for mothers. There’s her grandmother on her mother’s side, who was subject to years of intense physical abuse. And then there’s her great-great-grandmother, who died in a mental institution at the age of 36, the cause listed as melancholia. Schreck’s great-great-grandmother, we learn, was purchased by her future husband, who took advantage of friendly interstate-travel laws to bring his wife (his property) across the country to begin a life of servitude and abuse, reproducing children for work.
These cruelties to Schreck’s mothers are repeated in her own relationship to patriarchy. When she was 17, she tells us, she found herself trapped in a car with a boy who quickly got her pants off. She wanted to flee, and one thought kept coming to mind: “Stay alive!” She admits this was an irrational thought — he wasn’t going to kill her (and in fact, she admits, he is still her Facebook friend) — but she feared that outcome nonetheless. At the same time, she thought she should have sex with him because she was brought up, after all, to be polite, to always smile, to never disappoint, to not be a tease. They do have sex. She doesn’t get pregnant from the encounter, but she does from another, and has to travel to find an abortion provider (a secret she kept from her mother).
Schreck tells us that a debate champion from her high school days used to claim that the Constitution was like a quilt. But Schreck says that description makes the Constitution sound way too cozy. Does she mean, maybe, too maternal? Moving to the mother’s familiar mirror, Schreck instead describes the Constitution as “a living, warm-blooded, steamy document, hot and sweaty, a crucible, a witches’ cauldron.” In the end, she proposes that the Constitution might be better reenvisioned, rewritten, as an ur-mother, a positive rights document.
But the ur-mother comes rather late in the play and so remains trapped in the mother/witch dichotomy that provides Schreck with much of her thematic frame. Only Lewis breaks out of this troubling duality to pluralize the work of mothers, rethink care, and call for the end of the nuclear family. Yet Rose and Schreck get us partway there by affirming our mothers, and indicting the cruelty they have habitually endured.
Lori Jo Marso is the author of Politics with Beauvoir (2017), co-editor of Politics, Theory, and Film: Critical Encounters with Lars von Trier (2016), and editor of Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (2016).